6 military funeral traditions and their meaning

Each aspect of a military burial is steeped with tradition and meaning dating back centuries

6 military funeral traditions and their meaning

A folded national ensign is held carefully prior to the burial of Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec, former commander of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Zembiec was killed in action May 10, 2007. He once told reporters during combat in Fallujah his Marines "fought like lions." (Photo/U.S. Marine Corps)

By Military1 Staff

Thousands of military veterans are laid to rest each year, many of whom choose to buried with military honors. Every veteran who left the service with anything but a dishonorable discharge is eligible for the distinguished ceremony at their death.

The traditions of the military burial have been maintained for centuries, and each aspect of the ritual is steeped in meaning and symbolism. For those who choose to celebrate their life with the inclusion of a military burial, they are acknowledging the important role the armed service played in their life.

Flag-covered casket

The draping of military caskets dates back to Napoleon, where the tradition was to cover the dead with a flag. In the U.S., the flags are placed on the coffin, with the blue field over the left shoulder of the deceased. The flag should never drag the ground, and should not be buried with the casket. Instead, it is folded and presented to the next remaining kin.

Rifle volleys

At military funerals, three to seven members of the Honor Guard team conducting the ceremony will fire three volleys from each of their rifles. The tradition dates back centuries, when a cease-fire would occur during a fight, allowing each side to remove any casualties from the battlefield. Afterwards, three volleys would be shot, signifying the dead had been removed and taken care of by their respective sides, and the fight could continue.

The volleys are often mistaken for a 21-gun salute, which is actually conducted by artillery weapons, and only performed when current or former presidents, or a president-elect, die.


The inspiration for ‘Taps’ came from a song used by Napoleon to signal it was time for his troops to turn the lights out and end the day. Later, Gen. Daniel Butterfield altered the song, but retained the meaning, to what Americans now recognize as ‘Taps.’

During the Civil War, a military funeral was taking place in the evening in the middle of a battle. Rather than fire three volleys in tribute to the deceased and risk the enemy thinking the fighting had started once again, the captain in charged ordered ‘Taps’ to be played, thereby beginning the tradition of the song as part of U.S. military customs.

Folding of the flag

Many people believe each fold of the flag has a specific meaning, but no official account of those rumors exist. Instead, removing the flag from the coffin of the deceased and folding it with precise and quick movements into the recognizable triangle is a tribute to the type of hats worn by Gen. George Washington and his men at the beginning of our history as a country.

Three bullets

Interestingly, three shell casings from the rifle volleys, or three in-tact bullets are often slipped inside the flag before it is closed and presented to the next of kin. This is in direct violation to the flag code of the United States, which says that the flag “should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying or delivering anything.”

Though not official, many believe the three bullets or shell casings represent the phrase, “Duty, honor, country.”

Presenting the flag

After the flag has been folded, a member of the Honor Guard team from the same branch as the deceased will formally present the flag to the family. Kneeling in front of the next of kin, and with the long, straight edge of the flag facing the family, the Honor Guard member will say, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard) and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

The statement of gratitude was standardized across the Department of Defense in 2012.